Cyrano

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By Philip Pearce

IT’S INTERESTING the way that PacRep’s current season takes two central heroes of early 20th century European drama, Peter Pan and Cyrano de Bergerac, and gives them each a new look. Plus the frank theatricality of a handful of actors playing a whole lot of the characters involved in the stories of their lives.

In the June/July production of Peter and the Starcatcher twelve actors played more than 30 roles in a swashbuckling prequel to the August/July musical version of Peter Pan.

Now there’s an exciting new version of Cyrano, which tells the well-loved tale but pares nearly 50 speaking roles down to 27 to be played by a cast of nine.

When you think about it, Peter and Cyrano are cut from the same mold. Both are chock full of swaggering self-confidence, both are supernaturally brilliant swordsmen, both are sworn enemies of the social status quo. “I want,” Cyrano explains at one point, “to reduce the number of bows I have to make in a day.” Peter doesn’t want to grow up and have to make that kind of decision in the first place.

Like many another theater addict of my generation, I’ve always loved Rostand’s three hour, five-act marathon of moonlit romance, spontaneous poetry and dashing swordplay. But Michael Hollinger’s slick new translation and the fresh two-act adaptation of the text he shares with Aaron Posner make for a fast-paced and thoroughly satisfying evening in the Outdoor Forest Theater.

In a recent interview, Hollinger notes that the original script’s world of 17th century Paris isn’t exactly familiar territory to 21st century audiences. “It was important to me that the play speak to us, here and now, and therefore I made myself the litmus test of what would be accessible, immediate, funny, poignant, and so on.”

So there’s little left of Rostand’s blank verse or the sections of social comment on French society of the 1600’s. What comes across vividly is the central ironic dilemma of a man with a face so unsightly he can only use his supreme genius for poetic love talk to push his lady love into the arms of a handsome but tongue-tied rival.

Pacific Rep executive director Stephen Moorer is an active, touching and consistently funny Cyrano. He mines every vein of wit in the new script and catches most of the underlying pathos without ever slipping into the lilting Gielgud/Burton attitude and voice adopted by some Cyranos I’ve seen. His dying attack against social convention and phony officialdom is no reflective elegy, it’s a ruthless sword fight to the death.

This new version makes it easier to explore character motivations and navigate some of the finer points of 17th century French civic and military life by expanding the role of Le Bret. He’s no longer just Cyrano’s trusty military buddy; he’s a wise narrator who steps out of the action and into a spotlight to explain things directly to us ticket holders. It works admirably. Unlike Rostand’s audience but just like Shakespeare’s, we’ve reached a point where we like it when somebody pauses the story and comments on what’s going on. As always, Jeffrey T Heyer is clear and believable in the role.

The remainder of the players are busy and excellent, moving nimbly through two or three roles apiece. Jennifer Le Blanc is a beautiful, passionate Roxane, so swept up in a duet of Cyrano’s poetry and Gascon-cadet Christian de Neuvillette’s good looks that it takes her fourteen years to discover she’s been in love with the soul of one and only the body of the other.

Justin Gordon is an appealing Christian, a fresh military recruit who’s closely in touch with his feelings but clueless in expressing them. I liked his last-minute wide-eyed explosion of terror at having to woo the lovely Roxane, even coached by the eloquent Cyrano.

D Scott McQuiston is a bubbly and comically endearing Ragueneau, a pastry chef and would-be poet, who manages (in the interest of trimming down cast size) to shout protests at his wife for wrapping her pastries in the texts of his verses without her ever actually appearing on stage.

A small and energetic Andrew Mazer is convincingly tipsy as a bibulous cadet named Ligniere.  Lewis Rhames is willowy and comically inept as a plumed Parisian popinjay named De Valvert, one of a string of candidates for the hand of the fair Roxane. More purposeful and pompous is Michael Storm as another suitor, De Guiche, commander of Cyrano and Christian’s Gascon battalion. The versatile and surprising Garland Thompson moves effortlessly through five different roles, most notably in drag as Roxane’s busybody and sweet-toothed duenna and then in Rosary and wimple as the chatty, broom-wielding Sister Marthe.

Kenneth Kelleher’s direction manages, again and again, to make the nine-member cast look and act like a big crowd. My favorite segment of Act 1 is a sequence that doesn’t even happen in the old Rostand version. Cyrano, high and happy at some fond attention from his beloved Roxane, learns that a hundred sword-wielding thugs are planning a midnight ambush at the Porte de Nesle. He vows to bare his sword and carve them up, single handedly, one by one. Rostand’s script simply reports his success after the fact. Kelleher, Moorer and fight director Justin Gordon show it happening in a shadowy ballet of flashing swordplay which proves that perfectly timed farce can be both hilarious and beautiful.

I loved the show, but I had minor problems with the set design. The big outdoor theater stage allows for a lot of depth and width. But is the backstage area so limited that ingredients of Patrick McEvoy’s settings need to be stored in plain view instead of waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when required? The big quarter moon awaited its appearance in the balcony/garden scene from a position way upstage. And an unchanging background of blue-green wooden fretwork units gave a sense of clutter.

That said, it’s a must see, but take plenty of coats and blankets. It continues through October 15th.

 

 

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NEW THIS WEEK

APRIL IN SANTA CRUZ at UC Santa Cruz presents the UCSC Percussion Ensemble on Friday and Quinteto Latino on Saturday. TAP YOUR TOES! evening on Broadway from St Ignatius Parish on Thursday. PERCUSSION MASTERCLASS by Patti Niemi of the SF Opera Orchestra on Saturday morning. A.R. GURNEY’S SYLVIA, free on demand now at Jewel Theatre Company’s website. ARIA WOMEN’S CHOIR new Spring concert ready to stream now. WINDS IN THE WINERY to livestream from Ensemble Monterey on Sunday. KUUMBWA JAZZ presents Pamela Rose & Terrence Brewer on Monday. FOR DETAILS AND LINKS, CLICK HERE

TERRY GROSS INTERVIEWS DANCER TWYLA THARP

ON FRESH AIR. Includes video clips with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Click HERE  

FINDING AFRICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC

THE STORY OF REBECA OMORDIA’S concert series as told by retired cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Click HERE

TIME TO HONOR GEORGE BRIDGETOWER

THE VIOLINIST for whom Beethoven composed his great “Kreutzer” sonata deserves long-overdue recognition. Click HERE  

ASIANS IN AMERICA

HOW STEREOTYPES negatively impact theater. As told to American Theatre by Diep Tran. Click HERE   

AMERICAN PIANIST DEREK HAN (1957-2021)

ACCLAIMED ARTIST died unexpectedly at 63 last week in Florida. He was music director of the Trieste Concerts Society in Italy and leaves a huge discography on several record labels, including the complete Mozart piano concertos. He played with an understated restless urgency that breathed fresh life into the classics.

RONN McFARLANE, LUTE

THE MAN WHO HAS EMERGED as one of America’s premiere lutenists played a recital for the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society on Saturday. It was live-streamed for, among others, the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival. Before the concert began (and about 15 minutes after the published start time) McFarlane was interviewed by Festival founder Linda Burman-Hall. That chat revealed McFarlane’s moment of truth when, as a rock guitarist, he realized that he could no longer divide his career between guitar and lute. His choice led him to become a key member of the acclaimed Baltimore Consort, founded in 1980 to focus on the music used in Shakespearean plays. What that revealed, and still reveals, is the close relationship between concert and Celtic folk music of the 16th and early 17th centuries. McFarlane’s program straddled the divide between the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras but remained Celtic on both sides while he used different instruments to represent each. A key figure of that history was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind Irish harper, composer and singer whose gift for melody left a widely influential mark on Celtic music of his time and later. McFarlane added his own verbal observations and comments on the music he played. Since the lute is so indelibly associated with the music of an historic period, it must have come as a surprise for some to learn that new lute music is always emerging from the pipeline. Indeed, McFarlane’s playing style still echoes his early years in rock bands. SM 

RECREATING THE YAZH

IT’S  2,000-YEAR-OLD harplike instruments from the ancient courts of India. Click HERE  

ANTONIO ITURRIOZ OFFERS A GIFT

CUBAN-BORN artist, now resident of Sonoma County, plays a program of transcriptions by Liszt and Godowsky, a composer Iturrioz champions in his documentary film “The Buddha of the Piano: Leopold Godowsky.” Giving his first concert at 9, he played the Liszt First Piano Concerto for his orchestral debut at 15. Iturrioz in 2013 gave the world premiere performance on one piano of Gottschalk’s complete two-movement symphony La Nuit des Tropiques having transcribed for the first time the second movement, “Fiesta Criolla,” for one piano. The Steinway & Sons label released Gottschalk and Cuba in September 2018. On the album is the world premiere recording of this historic work. Andre Watts has called Gottschalk and Cuba an “extraordinary album of music!” 

THE HYPERTRAGIC NOTCH

 

LONDON-BORN in 1951, Cecilia McDowall has racked up an impressive collection of awards and honorary doctorates for her compositions for a cappella choirs, and this new release on Hyperion only underscores her talent and achievements. Gramophone wrote that her music “constantly tweaks the ear with her range of spicy rhythms and colours, then suddenly produces a highly atmospheric and grippingly expressive interlude which is just as compelling.” To my ear she aspires to degrees of ecstasy reminiscent of Hildegard von Bingen but with a dimension of sophistication distinctly her own. Like Hildegard she brings solo flights to the fore against seductive, often dissonant choral fabric. It’s those dissonances that blur the sense of tonality, always to excellent effect. Chorusmaster Stephen Layton, one of the most distinguished of his generation, conducts the fabulous Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in a collection of eight standalone settings and a set of Three Latin Motets, composed between 2013 and 2017. (The two from the latter year, “God is light” and “Love incorruptible,” use texts from Psalm 139—the ‘darkness to light’ 11th verse—and words from the Book of Ephesians about love and kindness, respectively.) Among McDowall’s carols, song cycles, dramatic scenas, cantatas and operas, she has set words by Sean Street, Clara Barton, Tony Silvestri, Marconi and Hedy Lamarr, movie star and co-inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, now used in WiFi and Bluetooth technology. The chosen words are often as fearless and defiant as her music for them. Harmonies and counterpoint are frequently as dense as a tapestry yet lucid to the attentive ear. Music like this makes me wish the Cabrillo Festival had as many choral resources as they have orchestral; McDowall entirely belongs in such company as the composers who star in Santa Cruz. The CD also contains a seven-part “O Antiphon sequence” (2018) for solo organ played by organist Alexander Hamilton. SM

I WAS TAKEN ABACK by this new album on the New Amsterdam label, because it makes no pretense at all to barnstorming the bastions of the avant-garde. On the contrary, composer Robert Honstein (b. 1980) has provided nine relatively short tracks of a domestic inflection—titles include Bay Window, Stairs, Hallway, Backyard (a fugue) and Driveway—for a tiny ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin and cello (Hub New Music ensemble) that turns out to embrace a most commodious, even familiar esthetic. In fact, it cleverly exposes for the first time in recent memory a niche that has been virtually abandoned by all other composers of our time. Tonality is so safe here that broken chords, repeating arpeggios, even a fugue are pure comfort food for the weary ear. The liner note opens with “Memory, nostalgia, longtime associations and enduring relationships: these are the raw materials from which Soul House…was constructed.” But this is no background music; charming and thoughtful instead come to mind. SM

TIME PASSES SLOWLY 

IF YOU’RE waiting for the rain to come

FRESH REVIEW

PHILIP PEARCE took in Howard Burnham’s Smith of the Titanic. Click HERE

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Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca CR Brooks, associate editor

 

Smith of the Titanic

By Philip Pearce

EDWARD JOHN SMITH, hapless captain of the Titanic, is the latest in Monterey Theater Alliance’s online portraits of famous people researched, written and acted by the wonderful Howard Burnham.

He sets the well known story, with all its clutter of half truths and outright lies, in the context of the growth of trans-Atlantic steam navigation in the late years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.

Early on, the British White Star Line beat out its rival Collins Line to dominate ocean travel by steam—a mode Americans first exploited with inland river paddle boats. Sailing by White Star was successful and exciting, but had ultimately to be taken over and delivered from bankruptcy by New York multi-millionaire JP Morgan.  

Howard catches the sad irony of EJ Smith’s eminence as the pioneer captain of a trio of White Star luxury liners, the first two so successful for their speed, comfort and safety that in a New York Times interview he spoke of an Atlantic crossing in RMS Adriatic as “uneventful,“ unmarred by “accidents or any sort of disaster.” He spoke with a characteristic calm assurance that only deepens the tragedy that lay ahead.

In a piece of history that has become as familiar for its false legends as its facts, Burnham reminds us that the ship’s orchestra kept passengers entertained with Ragtime tunes, shifting to “Nearer My God to Thee” only when that became the one suitable selection.  

He also skips most of the familiar parade of celebrity socialites on board, preferring to focus on Smith’s fellow officers and crew members like stewardess and nurse Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic disaster and then survived the sinking of her sister ship HMSH Britannic four years later.

This first person presentation differs from earlier ones in being offered from beyond the grave.  EJ Smith stuck firmly to British stiff upper lip tradition and went down with the ship.  Exonerated by both English and American boards of enquiry, he was honored with posthumous statues and plaques. But he’s presented as someone who would have regarded as his best memorials new laws that required ships to provide lifeboat space for everyone on board and enhanced equipment and tighter training for steaming in icy waters.

Relevant research and visual showmanship continue to be hallmarks of these one-man history lessons. The images of ships and churning storm waters are beautiful and instructive.

The show closes with a brisk, somewhat ironic review of the succession of movies that have retold the story and stretched the truth of April 14th, 1912. An early production, from Nazi Germany of all places, creates the heroic crew of a nearby German vessel, who struggle vainly to keep a Titanic load of crazed British idiots from ramming an iceberg. Hollywood’s 1950s Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck version of the disaster was somewhat less fanciful. Howard rates the British made “A Night to Remember” the most accurate of the films—but also the most boring. He finds Debbie Reynolds pleasingly photogenic as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” He has praise for the lavish production values of James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning epic but rates DiCaprio and Winslet the “stupidest” romantic leads in any of the screen versions.

Next subject on a date to be announced is William Shakespeare.